Saturday, November 20, 2021

Arguing over the meaning of words

There are two ways that words can come to have meaning--common use and stipulation.

Most words we use in every day life get their meaning through common use. Unless we invested our words with meaning by having an intention behind them when we use them, they would just be arbitrary sounds, scribblings, or gestures we made. It is because there is a thought or intention behind the words that they have meaning to us. Effective communication depends on everybody using words in the same ways. It's through interacting with people that common use takes place.

Language changes over time and can be different from place to place. That's because words can take on new meaning as people begin to use them in different ways. And if people are isolated from each other, they can take their language in a different direction. Eventually, they can become so different that they are different languages altogether.

Since language grows organically, it can be a rough process. It's inevitable that while a group of people are ironing out precise meanings to their words, there's going to be some conflict and misunderstanding along the way. If two people use the same words but with slightly different meanings, they will have a miscommunication. Sometimes miscommunication can happen without either person realizing it.

Sometimes, in the process of ironing out the meaning of words, we resolve conflict by accepting that each word can have more than one meaning. To understand each other in those situations, we have to rely on signs, the most important of which is context. The fact that words can have more than one meaning (since they are used in more than one way) can result in mistakes in reasoning. For example, if we use the same word with two different meanings, but treat them as if they refer to the same thing, then we can commit the fallacy of equivocation. People commit this fallacy sometimes on accident because they aren't thinking carefully enough about what they are dealing with. But people can also exploit equivocation to deceive and manipulate. People can also exploit equivocation to make a joke.

Dictionaries exist for the purpose of capturing the various uses of words. A good dictionary will put the most common use at the top. It's important to note that dictionaries don't give words their meaning; rather, they try to accurately capture the meaning they already have through common use. The definition a dictionary gives is only "correct" insofar as it accurately captures how people use words. A dictionary isn't right just because it's the dictionary. It's not right by definition, in other words. A dictionary can even be wrong if it fails to capture how words are used.

Words can also get their meaning through stipulation. We often use dictionaries in this way. While they are originally written to capture the common uses of words, a dictionary can carry authority if we're all willing to grant it authority. Then we can use the dictionary to settle disputes about the meaning of words. We treat the dictionary as if it's correct by definition. This can have some practical advantages.

When words get their meaning through stipulation, it most often happens when words are being used as terms of art. So, for example, if you're a physicist, an historian, a philosopher, a painter, or whatever, you might have particular words that are used in those fields with meanings that are peculiar to those fields. The meaning of those words in those contexts may be quite different than common use.

When somebody writes a paper in some specialized field or subject, they will sometimes either invent a word or use a word with some particular meaning that may differ from common use. If it's a good paper, and the author intends to use a word in a particular way that may be different than common use, they will be careful to define the word in their paper so the reader knows precisely what they mean by it. It could be that the definition they give is "wrong" according to common use, but that shouldn't matter. As a matter of praticality, all that should matter is that the reader knows what the author means.

The reason I'm belaboring all these points is because I see language causing a lot of unnecessary conflict between people, and I want to offer some suggestions for avoiding that conflict.

Conflict can happen when there's a misunderstanding between people. While most of us can agree that we should all define our terms so as to avoid miscommunication, we don't always know what terms need defining and which can just be taken for granted. So in spite of our best efforts at avoiding misunderstanding, it's still going to happen. The solution is not to accuse somebody of being deceptive or inconsistent, but to ask them what they mean. If it turns out that whatever meaning they tell you is not the most broadly accepted meaning of that word, the solution is not to correct them and tell them that's not what the word means. The solution, instead, is to interpret what they are saying in light of how they are using that word. That's the more amiable way of dealing with people.

If you treat language pragmatically, there's no reason to get up in arms with somebody over what you perceive to be the wrong use of a word. Arguing over the meaning of words is pointless if the bottom line is just to understand what each other are saying. The pragmatic approach is to listen to each other, ask each other what you mean, and interpret what they say in light of the definitions they give you.

There are times when it's useful to argue over the meaning of words, though. When two people are trying to interpret a third person (especially when that third person is long dead and left some writing behind), it's useful for the two people to argue over what the third person meant by their words since that deterimines the correct interpretation.

It can also be useful to argue over the meaning of words when it seems like they are being used in equivocal ways. This is especially the case when a word can carry a negative connotation but doesn't have to. Imagine this conversation:

Jim: Bob, you are a BLANK (used with a negative connotation).
Bob: Yes, I am a BLANK (used without a negative connotation).
Jim: Oh, did y'all hear that? Bob just admitted that he's a BLANK (used with a negative connotation).
Bob: Well, no, I'm not a BLANK like that. [picking up on Jim's negative meaning]
Jim: Oh, don't backpeddal now, you just admitted it. [Jim exploiting the equivocation in a dishonest way and treating Bob uncharitably].
Bob: When I said I was a BLANK, I didn't mean it the way you're using it.
Jim: But my definition is correct.

I suppose some people mean to engage in conflict when they try to stick somebody with whatever negative connotation a word might carry. If they can get the person to admit to owning that word, even if in a benign sense, then they exploit the opportunity to treat the person as if they've just admitted to something nefarious. In the cases like that, it makes good sense for a person to defend themselves by arguing over the meaning of a word. It's a shame one must do this, though.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

I can't answer every question or objection

The other day, I saw a comment somebody left on a YouTube channel saying that he went from being a Christian to an atheist because of the failure of Christians to answer all his questions. I suspect a lot of Christians saw that and thought, "We need to do a better job of educating ourselves so we can answer people's questions so this doesn't happen." I think it's great and all that being able to answer everybody's questions is the goal, but realistically, I don't think it's a goal that can ever be met or that we should even expect that it should ever be met.

After all, no matter what worldview you subscribe to, there are going to be questions you can't answer about that worldview. If anybody claims to have all the answers, we ought to be suspicious because it seems more likely that they're making stuff up than that they actually have all the answers.

I don't know specifically what questions this person had that didn't get answered, but I think when it comes to adopting a worldview, there are two things we ought to consider without having to answer every single question or every possible objection somebody might raise to that worldview. One thing is that given all the information we have, which worldview is the best fit? Which worldview has the least problems and explains the most information?

The second thing you should look at is the core essentials of that worldview. There are some aspects to a worldview that are more important than others, and you want to focus on the most important stuff. The fact that adopting a worldview raises all kinds of questions isn't a big problem for that worldview unless those questions raise serious doubt about the essential elements of that worldview.

I think that as an honest defender of any point of view, you ought to be comfortable saying you don't know when you don't know. What I like to do when somebody asks me a difficult question is first let the other person know that I'm not sure, but then to offer whatever thoughts I have on the subject. If you try to offer your speculations before letting the other person know that they are speculations, it's just going to come across as dishonest.

One more point I want to make is that not all questions amount to objections. Whenever you find out something new, it almost always raises new questions. But the mere existence of an unanswered question doesn't amount to an objection. Not knowing how something happens or why it happens is not enough to argue that it doesn't happen. Our lack of knowledge doesn't, by itself, imply that there's nothing to be known. Our ignorance doesn't imply that there's no answer to be found. Questions can amount to objections, but you need a little more than ignorance to make those objections go through.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Two arguments against the empty tomb

Most responses to the empty tomb are designed to undermine arguments for the empty tomb. If sound, they don't show that there was no empty tomb. They just show (if successful) that the arguments for the empty tomb are inadequate.

But there are two arguments that attempt to show, positively, that there was no empty tomb.

The argument from Paul's silence

The earliest source we have about the death and resurrection of Jesus comes from the tradition Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. It reads:

that he died for our sins according to the scriptures, and
that he was buried, and
that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and
that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Paul mentions the death and burial of Jesus, but there's nothing about the empty tomb. And since this is our earliest source, it supposedly follows that the empty tomb was a later addition to the story. Paul failed to mention the empty tomb because he knew of no such thing.

This is the weaker of the two arguments. Consider a similar formulae:

I was exhausted from the day's hike
I went to bed
I got up the next morning
I rejoined my friends
Notice that although I got up the next morning, there's no mention of an empty bed. Would anybody conclude from a formulae like this that me getting out of bed did not imply that my bed was left empty? To say that my bed was empty would've been an awkward and unnecessary redundancy. It would sound weird if we included it.

Likewise, saying that Jesus' grave was empty would've been redundant. If Jesus was buried, then raised, of course his grave would be empty. As I argued in my series on Resurrection, a resurrection just is when a dead corpse comes back to life and rises from its grave. If the New Testament authors meant anything different than that, they would not have called it a resurrection.

But one mustn't press the point too far. While Paul's words clearly imply that there was an empty grave, they do not necessarily imply an empty tomb since although Paul said Jesus was buried, he did not say Jesus was buried in a tomb. William Lane Craig goes too far in some of his writings to claim that Paul implies an empty tomb.

But I'm not trying to defend the empty tomb from Paul's tradition. Rather, I'm just answering an argument against the empty tomb from Paul's silence on the matter. Paul's silence on the empty tomb tells us nothing at all about whether Paul knew about an empty tomb. That's my point.

The argument from standard procedure

Crucifixion was used by the Romans to maintain the Pax Romana (aka, the Peace of Rome). It was meant to discourage revolutionary type movements among other things. They did this by making them public spectacles of extreme torture. It was meant to be humiliating and horrific in order to discourage people from rebellions.

In keeping with this practice, most people did not receive honorable burials afterward. Instead, their bodies were either left on the crosses to rot, or else they were disposed of in mass graves or wherever people got rid of their garbage.

The argument from standard practice is that Jesus would not have been buried in a tomb in the first place since he was a crucifixion victim, and that's not how the bodies of crucifixion victims were typically treated.

This argument would carry some weight if we had no actual information about what happened to Jesus' body. In that case, we could surmise that Jesus was probably discarded in the usual way merely because it's the usual way. But you can't undermine specific evidence for an event merely on the basis of what usually happens. Specific evidence always trumps these kinds of probablistic arguments.

The argument might go through if one could establish that as a rule, crucifixion victims cannot be buried in tombs and must be gotten rid of some other way. If it could be estblished that dishonorable disposal was what always happened, then we could say there's a probability that our specific evidence in the case of Jesus is mistaken.

But it turns out we have evidence, not just in Jesus' case, but in the case of other crucifixion victims that some people did get decent burials. This was especially the case in Judea where the Jews were typically allowed to practice their religion (which required burying people hanged from a tree on the same day - Deuteronomy 21:22-23) even under Roman rule. Josephus, for example, writes that, "the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun" (Jewish Wars, Book 4, Chapter 5, Section 2). So, standard practice outside of Judea did not apply to crucified victims in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified.

We also have archaeological evidence of a crucified victim in Judea who was buried in a tomb. The usual course was to bury somebody in a tomb until their bodies were decayed to the bones. Then the bones were taken out and put into ossuaries. A crucifixion victim named Jehohanan was found in one of these ossuaries with a nail through his heal and other evidence that he had been crucified.

There's more on this subject in one of InspiringPhilosophy's YouTube videos.

He won't last long in the Everglades

The more I hear about the search for Brian Laundrie, the more it sounds like "The Everglades" song by The Kingston Trio. There are just some minor differences, and I'm cutting out a few lines.

He was born and raised around Jacksonville
A nice young man, not the kind to kill
But a jealous fight and a flashing blade,
Sent him on a run through the Everglades.

The posse went in and they came back out
They said he'll die, and there ain't no doubt.
It's an eye for an eye, so the debt is paid.
He won't last long in the Everglades

Where a man can hide and never be found
And have no fear of the baying hounds,
But he better keep moving and don't stand still
If the skeeters don't get him then the gators will

The years went by, and his girl was wed.
His family gave him up for dead.
But now and then the natives would say,
They seen him running through the everglades.

Well, he never heard the news on the radio.
He ws deep in the 'glades, so he'll never know.
His running and hiding didn't make much sense,
For the jury had ruled it was self-defense.

By the way, has anybody ever noticed that the tune of "The Everglades" is the same tune as that old Louis the Lighteningbug commercial?

When your parents and you go to sail for the day
Make sure the power lines are far away.
When your daddy and you make the house look fine
Don't bring ladders or antennas near power lines.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Kyle Royer's plunge grinding jig

Since my cat won't let me sleep, I thought I'd look up Kyle Royer's plunge grinding jig. This jig is sheer elegance in its simplicity. Unfortunately, I can't use it because I don't have variable speed on my knife grinder, and my grinder goes too fast for this to work. But I'm going to put it right here for myself and anybody else who wants to have a look-see. Some day when I get a nicer knife grinder, I'll be able to use it. It sure would make it easier to get nice looking plunge lines.

EDIT: 9/18/2021 - I found a video on YouTube where somebody made one of these jigs. He called it a "waterfall platen." I think that's a great name. I hope it takes because that will make it easier to search and see how other people made theirs.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The interaction problem with substance dualism

The major difficulty with substance dualism is the interaction problem. This is the problem of accounting for how something physical and something non-physical could interact with each other. This problem is characterized in various different ways. If substance dualism is true, then the mind/soul has causal influence over the brain (which is how you are able to will your arm to move or act on any of your desires), and the brain has causal interaction with your mind/soul (which is how you are able to perceive through your sensory organs).

I came up with a solution one time that I have since then abandoned, but let me tell you about it. My solution was to say that maybe the mind has the unique ability to create energy ex-nihilo. Let me explain how I thought this could solve the interaction problem.

Imagine you've got some particle at rest, and you want it to move. Well, if that same object began to move, then it would have to have kinetic energy that it didn't have before, and that energy would have to come from somewhere. In the case of physical causation, energy is transferred to the particle by something else that has energy. Maybe something collided with it, or maybe it was pushed. But something that is non-physical doesn't have energy because energy is a physical thing. So it would appear to have no way to move the particle unless it had the ability to create energy ex-nihilo. So imagine that it could create another particle. All it would have to do is create the particle in proximity to the other particle, and the forces of nature could take over from there. If both particles were electrons, then there would be a force of repulsion between them. The direction of motion could be determined by the location of the created particle in relation to the already existing particle.

The causal interactions in the brain could be so subtle as to be unobservable or indistinguishable from random quantum events. One new electron could be sufficient to set of an avalanche of chemical reactions in the brain resulting in behavior. It might only require the release of potential energy through the pulling of a trigger.

I liked this solution when I first came up with it because it had a second use. In the Kalam cosmological argument, you get an immaterial cause of the universe, but then you need additional arguments to show that it's a person. William Lane Craig has two arguments for the personhood of the cause of the universe, and I don't think either one is all that persuasive.l But if it turned out that minds had the unique ability to create ex-nihilo, then we could argue for the personhood of the cause of the universe by saying something like this: Since minds are the only things we know of capable of creating ex-nihilo, it follows that a mind is the best candidate for an explanation for the beginning of the universe.

The only problem is that this solution only works when the direction of causation goes one way. It doesn't work as well when causation goes in the other direction. It explains how a mind could have causal interaction in the brain, but not how a brain could have causal interaction over the mind.

One possible solution was to imagine that the reverse happens. When the brain causes something in the mind, it does so by annihilation rather than creation. I don't think this works, though. It would require that matter has the ability to annihilate itself, but only when interacting with the mind. That just seems unlikely. You can't attribute the ability to the mind since that would require that the mind was doing the causing. We are trying to explain how the brain can do the causing, so it's the material of the brain that has to bring about the annihilation. Maybe somebody else can toy with that idea and make it work, but I don't see how it would work. It is for this reason that I've pretty much abandoned this whole solution to the interaction problem.

Currently, I have no good solution to the interaction problem. But the interaction problem isn't a major obstacle to my belief in substance dualism for a few reasons.

One reason is because in spite of the difficulty of solving the interaction problem, the arguments for substance dualism seem sound to me. If I were to give up substance dualism, I'd be trading one problem for even more problems. I think physicalism and idealism are even more problematic than substance dualism.

Another reason is because we don't have to know how something happens to know that it happens. There are mysteries in the physical world that we don't deny in spite of how strange they are. I'm thinking particularly about quantum entanglement. If two particles are entangled, then no matter how far apart they become, measuring the properties of one appears to determine the properties of the other. There appears to be instantaneous causation over large distances, or what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance." We know that it happens, and it's very strange, but we have no idea how it happens. If the world is strange enough to contain phenomena like this, then the interaction problem shouldn't bother us.

Lastly, it isn't as clear to me as it is to others why the interaction problem is a problem in the first place. I mean I do see that there's a problem. I just don't think the problem is as formiddable as some people think it is. That may be due to my own lack of understanding, but I can't help that.

Monday, August 09, 2021

Fine tuning, the anthropic principle, and the puddle analogy

According to the fine-tuning argument, the fact that there's this universe in which various constants had to have very precise values in order to make life possible requires an explanation which can be found either in a cosmic engineer (which would pretty much have to be a god) or a multiverse (which expands our explanatory resources). Some people say that fine-tuning can be answered by appeal to the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle is a particular manifestation of the observer selection effect. In this case, we would have to find ourselves in a life-permitting universe since a universe would have to be life permitting in order to contain us. We couldn't very well observe ourselves in a universe incapable of supporting life. So there is an observer selection effect that makes it possible to only observe life-permitting universes.

Some people think this answers the fine-tuning problem. Since we could only observe a universe that is life-permitting, it shouldn't be any surprise that that's exactly what we observe. Therefore, there's nothing that requires explanation.

The problem, though, is that the anthropic principle only works if you also invoke a multiverse. If there were a multiverse, and we were asking why we observe a life-permitting universe instead of a life-prohibiting universe, the anthropic principle would answer that question. Even if life-permitting universes are rare in the multiverse, they are nevertheless the only kinds of universes that can be observed since they're the only kind that can support observers.

But the question raised by the fine-tuning argument isn't why we find ourselves in a life-permitting universe instead of a life-prohibiting universe. Rather, the question is why we find ourselves at all given how unlikely it is that a universe that could support us would exist.

Consider the firing squad analogy. I got this from somebody else, but I don't remember who. Sorry about that. Anyway, imagine you're in front of a firing squad, and after they all fired, you're still alive. That requires some explanation. Why are you still alive? It wouldn't do to say, "Well, there's nothing here that needs to be explained since I would have to be alive in order to be asking the question." That doesn't answer the question. The question isn't why you're in front of a missing firing squad instead of a hitting firing squad. The question is why you're still alive at all since the probability was against you.

The puddle analogy is kind of like the anthropic principle. The puddle finds itself in a hole that seems perfectly suited to it. We know, however, that it's actually the puddle that has conformed to the hole rather than the hole that just happens to be suited to the puddle. In the same way, a lot of people say the universe wasn't made for us; rather, we conform to the way the universe already was. We are the way we are because the universe was the way it was, so there shouldn't be any surprise that we find ourselves in a universe that's perfectly suited to our existence.

It's certainly true that we have come to conform to the way the universe actually is. But remember, the fine-tuning argument isn't about why life turned out one way rather than another way. Rather, it's about why there's life at all, or why the universe is life-permitting at all. In the puddle analogy, the question shouldn't be why the puddle and the hole are perfectly suited for each other, but why a hole should exist at all that could contain a puddle.

The puddle analogy is similar to another objection to fine-tuning which is just based on a misconception about the fine-tuning argument. Some people take the fine-tuning argument to be about life as we know it. The assumption behind this misconception appears to be that if we just tweak the constants a little, we'd get a different kind of life. But that isn't the claim. The claim, rather, is that without fine-tuning, no life whatsoever, be it ever so exotic, would be possible since life of any kind (or at least any physical kind) requires complex chemistry, and complex chemistry requires fine-tuning.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

What did Jesus say?

This morning (8/7/2021), I was talking to a couple of family members about houses on beaches. I asked how they built them or what they did for a foundation since they were on sand. One of them explained how they drive beams or poles deep into the ground until they hit some kind of solid foundation. The conversation reminded me of what Jesus said in Matthew 7 about building your house on the sand. He said,

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts on them, will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and its collapse was great. ~Matthew 7:24-27

I read this to the said family members as kind of a joke, inserting "tsunamis" along with the wind and rain. They were talking about buying a house on the beach, and the joke was that Jesus said only a fool would build a house on the sand. One of them wanted to challenge whether Jesus actually said it, so first he asked who wrote it, and then he asked when it was written. I didn't go into detail about that, and it's beside the point of this post anyway. This is just a preface to explain what got me to thinking about what I'm going to say in this post.

The point of this post is to talk a little bit of what I think about whether and to what degree the gospels accurately portray what Jesus said. I only want to speak in generalities here because otherwise this would be really long. Besides, I haven't done an in depth study on the sayings of Jesus, and I'm probably not qualified to do that anyway.

But I can talk in generalities, and I have just a handful of points I want to make. I want to talk a little about what we should expect of the gospels and also what the gospels actually show.

First, Jesus was an itinerant teacher. Like most traveling teachers we know of (e.g. Christian and atheist apologists), they give a lot of the same talks over and over again or they repeat the same things over and over again in their various talks. If you follow certain people, you begin to pick up on speech patterns, aphorisms, and one-liners they use. A person can be famous for a quote or two, and that quote gets repeated by their followers and even by people who don't follow them. We should expect that the same thing would be true of Jesus. Jesus likely had very devout followers--people who looked up to him in a way that nobody looks up to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or William Lane Craig. So we should expect that many of them hung on his every word. They followed him from town to town, hearing him say the same things over and over again. Some were part of his inner circle who eventually became apostles who then repeated those teachings to other people. So we should expect that at least some of the sayings of Jesus in the gospels would be almost verbatim what Jesus said. This would be true even if people didn't intentionally commit their teacher's sayings to memory. It would just stick as a matter of course.

That is probably the case in some of the more pithy sayings of Jesus as opposed to the long monologues. But we also see certain speech patterns that are peculiar to Jesus, like how he says, "truly truly I say to you. . ." or how he talks about the Son of Man in the third person even though it appears he's always talking about himself in those sayings. Jesus has a certain voice. We recognize "voice" in people we know really well. So if somebody were to try to fake a letter from your wife to you, you might read the letter and think, "That doesn't sound like how my wife speaks or writes."

Contrast that, though, with John's gospel. In John's gospels, the voice of Jesus often sounds more like the narrator than like the Jesus of the synoptics. I'll come back to this point in a little bit.

There are other reasons besides having a peculiar voice to think some of the sayings of Jesus are nearly verbatim when recorded in the synoptics. One is that they are multiply attested. For example, sometimes when Jesus tells a parable, he'll preface it by saying, "The kingdom of God is like. . ."

If you look at the synoptic gospels in parallel, you notice that while he might say the same things in similar words, the exact wording is often altered. This can be attributed to a combination of two things--Jesus himself likely altered the way he said things in different places and in different contexts, and the authors themselves might've altered the way Jesus said something to fit the context.

That brings me to another point I wanted to make which is that I definitely don't think everything the gospels quote Jesus as saying is verbatim what he said. I think in a lot of cases, especially in the longer monologues, they are trying to capture the gist of what Jesus said or taught. Returning to what I said earlier about John's gospel, I think John does this more than the synoptics. If Jesus himself varied how he delivered certain teachings, there's no reason for why the gospels authors shouldn't do the same.

There is a question, though, of what they intended to accomplish. Were they attempting to capture Jesus' sayings as accurately as they could, were they happy to capture what they took Jesus' teachings to be, but put them in their own words? Or were they making stuff up, maybe to attribute things to Jesus that they themselves already believed?

This can be partially answered by looking at the genre of the gospels, which is Greco-Roman biograpy. I've become so convinced of this position over the last year that I've decided to just state it as a fact rather than hedging by saying, "According to most scholars," or citing Richard Burridge. Anyway, Greco-Roman biography covers a wide range of styles. According to some ancient historians, the goal ought to be to capture the essence of what somebody said in a speech, but you ought to do it in an artistic way. I think John took more artistic license than the synoptics, but I think John accurately conveyed what Jesus taught. I am an inerrantist after all.

My suspicion is that once some saying of Jesus was committed to writing, authors who used that writing as a source took less artistic license than they would have if they were writing a completely fresh gospel. So Mark might have taken some artistic license in how he conveyed Jesus' teachings, but once he did, Matthew and Luke only altered them slightly. And I don't really know how much of that alteration is due to the artistry of Matthew and Luke or due to the fact that Jesus himself worded things differently from time to time. Even if Matthew and Luke were writing independently of each other about the same event, they might have worded things differently because nobody knows which way Jesus said a particular thing in one place as opposed to another place. If he said the same thing in slightly different words in Capernaum and Bethsaida, it could be that nobody remembered which way he said it in which place. But it doesn't matter unless the difference in wording fits the context better in one place than in another.

I suspect that in at least some Greco-Roman biography, authors made things up. In some cases, they might make up a speech to capture a moment that they think would've been appropriate for the occasion. Or maybe they went so far as making stuff up because it's what they wish the person had said. If I were looking at the gospels from a purely secular perspective, I wouldn't rule out that possibility in the case of Jesus either. But because I think the gospels are the word of God, I think that puts limits to how loosely they could have been written. I don't think, for example, that the authors would have Jesus saying something when Jesus never said any such thing, and I especially don't think they'd have Jesus saying something if it were actually contrary to something Jesus taught.

But even from a secular perspective, there's another reason to think the gospels accurately capture at least some of Jesus' teachings besides the fact that he was an itinerant teacher and is portrayed as having a peculiar voice. It's because it seems very unlikely that a religion that grew up around his memory would end up having nothing to do with the real Jesus. While a secular person might allow that legends grew up around Jesus, it's highly unlikely that the movement he started would diverge so thoroughly in such a short amount of time (especially during the lifetime of his apostles) that nothing of the real Jesus survived, and all of it was completely replaced by fiction. I wouldn't believe that no matter how anti-Christian I was. I would think the gospels must retain at least some of what Jesus said and did, especially the really important stuff, and I would think one could apply historical methods to discover at least some of the authentic teachings.

That is not to say it would be easy. If you look at the history of historical Jesus studies, you see that consensus is hard to come by. In spite of that, there is consensus on at least a handful of things. The Jesus Seminar attempted a few decades ago to see if they could reach a concensus, and they did reach a concensus on about 18% of the sayings of Jesus. They've been criticized as not being representative of scholarship as a whole, but if the critics had their way, that concensus would be higher, not lower, because the dispute wasn't in what the Jesus Seminar affirmed, but in what they denied.